Beef, pork, and lamb are flavorful proteins that lend themselves to countless preparations. But headlines in recent years about E. coli infection and mad cow disease (in the case of cattle), and increasing concerns about the health risks of growth hormones and antibiotics, could send even the most devoted carnivore to the produce section.
Industrial farming techniques have seriously compromised the healthfulness of many meats. More than with any other food, it's imperative to seek out the highest-quality and most humanely raised meat products you can afford. Many of the health and environmental problems related to meat can be avoided if you know what labels mean and handle and cook the food properly once you get it home.
Reduce your chance of exposure to E. coli and other food-borne bacteria, such as salmonella, by cooking ground meat (which can harbor more bacteria than prime center cuts) to at least 160 degrees for beef, pork, and lamb. If you're industrious, consider grinding your own meat, which produces less risk of contamination. (Of course, this is contingent upon keeping your meat grinder and kitchen surfaces clean.)
Meat with a USDA organic label is guaranteed to come from animals raised on organic feed, without antibiotics or growth hormones. The crowded and often filthy conditions of feedlots on industrial farms contribute to the development and spread of disease, which is why cattle and other livestock on factory farms are treated preventively with antibiotics. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, about 70 percent of all antibiotics administered in this country are given to livestock, a practice that could be contributing to the spread of community-acquired MRSA, the dangerous and antibiotic-resistant strain of staph infection (see Healthy Egg and Chicken Tips).
Conventional farmers also use both natural and synthetic growth hormones to make livestock mature more quickly; some advocacy groups are concerned that the residual hormones in the meat can contribute to cancer and other health risks in humans.
Certified humane raised and handled means that the cattle were raised humanely from pasture to slaughter, also without antibiotics or hormones. This designation is independently verified. Some other labels -- such as antibiotic free, free range or free roaming, biodynamic, and natural -- can be good when they're accurate, but unfortunately there's no independent verification.
Eat grass-fed beef -- organic, if you can find it. Cows and sheep digest grasses better than grains, and there is evidence that grass-farmed cattle are healthier and produce more nutritious meat; it is lower in calories and fats and higher in good omega-3 fatty acids, among other things. (Grass-fed animals are also less likely to need antibiotics.) Pigs also stay much healthier when foraging in open pasture or forests, where their diet is more varied.
If you're lucky enough to have a small farm or a good independent health-food store nearby, you may be able to ask how the meat you're buying was produced; some small suppliers meet guidelines even more rigorous than those listed above but cannot or will not pay the fees necessary to earn a particular designation. Unfortunately, no government agency currently regulates the "grass-fed" label, so use your best judgment.
Eat less meat, or avoid it altogether, to prevent beef-linked diseases and benefit the planet. Raising livestock is one of the main contributors to global warming. Indeed, the United Nations reports that 18 percent of all greenhouse gases come from livestock production, a figure that dwarfs emissions from all the planes, cars, and trains on Earth.